Habeas at Bagram?

If you missed Tuesday’s press conference at the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs got himself into some trouble, and it all started with those two little syllables:


Upon which Helen Thomas one again abandoned propriety and asked an actual question:

“Why is the President blocking habeas corpus from prisoners at Bagram? I thought he taught constitutional law. And these prisoners have been there –”

Here’s where Gibbs stepped in with a brilliant defense of his boss’s unconstitutional behavior.

“You’re incorrect that he taught on constitutional law.”

Ouch. Nailed that one. But Helen kept talking as if Gibbs had missed the point.

“– for many years with no due process.”

But Gibbs was ready and still had a card to play. It was a bit tattered and stained, but he pulled it out and held it up high so that everyone could read the four-letter word printed on it: FEAR.

“Well, there are several issues relating to that that have to do differently than in some places than others, particularly because you have detainees in an active theater of war. There’s a review that’s pending of court cases and decisions, and we want to ensure — we want to ensure protection and security of the American people as well as rights that might be afforded.”

Helen: “Are you saying these people in prison are a threat to us?”

Now watch how many words it takes for Gibbs to say yes to the question he wanted asked and how quickly he moves on without ever addressing the initial question Helen had asked:

“Well, I think that part of that is the determination based on our detainee policy that the President announced on the 21st of January, that that’s part of that review, yes. Chuck.”

Later a man not identified by name in the transcript asked this:

“Robert, I wanted to follow up on Helen’s question about Bagram. While it is true that it’s an active theater of hostilities, the individuals who have brought these court challenges were not detained in that theater. Those people are claiming that they were detained somewhere else and flown to Bagram. Given the President’s comments during the campaign about his concerns about a legal black hole, how is it any different as a moral matter to fly someone to Bagram versus flying them to Guantanamo?”

This poor sap obviously didn’t get the memo about how well-known Guantanamo was as a BAD PLACE and how few T-shirts had ever been printed demanding the closure of Bagram. Sheesh. Gibbs explained it to him:

“Well, one of the things that’s being undertaken as part of this review are part — are the claims that you mentioned, the status of who’s there and why, and that while that review is pending, the Justice Department concluded that it was necessary to appeal the ruling because it might arguably permit access to U.S. courts by a detainee in Bagram who claims he’s not an Afghan citizen and was captured outside of Afghanistan. So the ruling is — the judgment that was made is consistent with that as part of the detainee review process.”

But the questioner, clearly unfamiliar with the grammar of Gibbs’ home planet, ignored most of this and asked:

“So it’s just bad luck that they were flown to Bagram where they have no rights, versus flying them to Guantanamo where the President thinks they would?”

Gibbs did not address the hypocrisy or explain why a review was needed to determine in each part of the world separately whether human beings should have habeas corpus, but he did say:
“I think a review is going to determine their status. I won’t speak to the luck of somebody that finds themselves at any of those places.Yes, Wendell.”

The fun wasn’t over. Someone named David asked:

“Another Spanish question. There is a judge in Spain, according to reports, who is close to — it may have even happened this afternoon — to indicting Gonzales and five other former Bush officials for torture of Spaniards who were in Guantanamo. If they go ahead and do this, would the U.S. government cooperate with any information requests from Spanish prosecutors involved in the case? And do you think this is an appropriate action for another government to take?”

Here Gibbs does not answer the question of whether it is appropriate for another nation to prosecute our criminals, knowing as he almost certainly does that Spain has told the Obama administration that it wouldn’t prosecute if the United States would, and knowing that our laws and treaties require us to prosecute whether Spain suggests it or not. Gibbs also does not answer the question of whether the U.S. government will share information, on the grounds that this is a “hypothetical,” the indictments not having yet happened. Yet Gibbs’ acceptable hypotheticals elsewhere in the same press conference included these:

“The President’s proposal would save $94 billion — billion with a “b” — over a 10-year period of time by taking the banks out of the middle of this process.”


“I know later this afternoon, weather permitting, the dog will be outside — if not, the dog will be inside.”

Here was Gibbs’ “answer”:

“Well, I don’t want to get involved in hypotheticals. We may have some reaction based on what ultimately happens. David, as you and many others know, that there’s pending court cases about information that the administration is involved in as we speak about information.

Then Gibbs goes on to stress that although he will studiously avoid mentioning that crimes have been committed he intends to reiterate ad nauseam that those crimes will no longer be committed:

“I think it’s important to understand, above all, that the President has taken strong and swift actions to ensure that whatever actions were either permissible or carried out previously are no longer the policy of this government and will no longer be undertaken by this government. I think that is important for people to hear throughout the world.”

“Whatever actions were either permissible or carried out”? Is he serious? This either means torture or it means nothing at all.”

The same questioner went on:

“Just to follow up, have you had any conversations with the Spanish government about this pending case?”

We know that the US government has had such conversations, and it’s safe to assume that the reporter was at the White House to ask about the actions of the government, not of Robert Gibbs. Nonetheless, he got this answer:

“I have not spoken with the Spanish.”

Q Or the Justice Department?

MR. GIBBS: I would send you to Justice. Like I said, I’ve not spoken —

Q I’m not talking about —

MR. GIBBS: I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Bill, either, come to think of it, on this. Yes, sir.”

And there was yet another question asked but not answered:

“Q Robert, thank you. Senators Kennedy, Leahy, and Feingold have introduced legislation that would roll back the use of state secrets privilege for DOJ. Repeated attempts to get comment from the White House have not been returned, and I’m wondering why the White House is so sensitive about commenting on this when Vice President Biden co-sponsored that bill in the last Congress.

MR. GIBBS: I have — I would have to take a look at what they’ve called for and how it relates to the actions that the Justice Department —

Q It’s the same bill as Congress.

MR. GIBBS: You’ll find it hard to believe I didn’t read that bill either, but I’m certainly — we’re happy to take a look at it and provide you some comment.

Q Thank you.”

Thank you?

DAVID SWANSON is the author of “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press. He can be reached at: david@davidswanson.org


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David Swanson wants you to declare peace at http://WorldBeyondWar.org  His new book is War No More: The Case for Abolition.

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